Sahara Survival - Page 2
A group works together across a pebble-covered flat. Photo by Carolyn Schaffer.
Stage 2 is a furnace of 120-degree heat.
I just dive-bombed today’s last descent, a 1000-footer that spit us onto flat ground composed of black gravel. I see the red finish-line banner and the black bivouac tents, warped by heat waves. Patrick designs each day’s course so that you either can’t see the finish line until you are at it or you see it from miles away. Either finish is his final form of daily course-design torment, and today’s is the latter variety.
A headwind flips up sheets of grit. I overtake another runner, noticing it is Mauro and giving him a come-with-me wave. He speeds up, steps ahead of me and plays (a totally legal) windbreak. His gesture is sweet, paternal even, and a wave of affection for him flushes over me. When it’s my turn to pull, Mauro slides into my slipstream. The wind lets up enough that I hear our shoes simultaneously crunching rocks. The rhythm is hypnotic and familiar.
I became a trail runner because of the repetitive, calming sound of feet on dirt. In 2006, I called myself a road runner and was headed to the starting line of Missoula, Montana’s Riverbank Run when my mom telephoned to say that my father had died while they were on vacation in South America. After that, my mother withered into depression and near non-functionality. Though much about the next couple of years sucked, watching my mom suffer broke my heart the most. I was working and living in Yellowstone National Park, and I coped by running trails.
Because friends forced me, I tried to heal in other ways. I visited a therapist, but she focused on the past. “Look,” I remember telling her, “your questions only ensure that I see my father’s drowned, blue body lying on a beach when I shut my eyes at night.”
On the trail, reality was the soft rhythm of shoes hitting earth. The act shut out the past, the future, the present. I ran so much that I dreamed about it, too. This kind of running was reckless and unsustainable in the long-term, but it provided the peace I found nowhere else.
Mauro and I cross the finish line. I thank him until he becomes bashful. “Sì, Sì, Sì, bella,” he says. My gratitude is for the 30-minute peloton, the memory of how I began in this sport and the relief of not having to run like that anymore.
With his sun hat, sunglasses, and opaque sunscreen, John Mulligan deflects the Sahara's intense sun. Photo by Kirsten Kortebein.
John Milligan knows how to suffer,
I think as my new friend waddles past my tent like an exquisitely uncomfortable duck. He just finished Stage 3. “How are you?” I ask, immediately hating myself for those words. He’s clearly unwell.
“I’m going to finish this race,” he responds, pointing his finger at the ground as if he is a father lecturing his child. The 42-year-old is a business unit manager for the Vermeer Cooperation from Pella, Iowa. I understand, from the conversations we’ve shared since meeting each other in an Ouarzazate hotel before the race, John came to the MdS with big expectations. The Sahara Desert has its own plans for him, and it is chewing him up and spitting him out.
We sit in his tent. He removes his sand gaiters, shoes and socks, groaning through the movements. He has developed foot blisters that grow in size every day, and he says that they now cover half the surface area of each foot. At today’s finish line, the race’s medical staff treated the blisters and covered his feet with white bandages. I can’t see the podiatric disaster, and don’t want to.
“You’re a rock star,” says John, referring to me passing him during each of the three stages after he was slowed by those blisters. “You make it look easy.” John had hoped to finish among the top 50 runners, but now he says he’ll have to suffer much to finish in the top 50 percent. “I left my ego on Stage 1’s course. I had to.”
I understand that his heart is as raw as his feet and mutter, “I’m really sorry.” I mean, there is nothing easy about running 150 miles and otherwise surviving for a week in the Sahara, but what do you say to a man who is doing it without skin on his feet?
Stage 4 is a 50-miler.
On this day, the top 50 men and five women begin three hours after the mass start. I am somewhere around 50th-place overall and the fifth-place woman.
After the other 800 runners depart at 8:30 a.m., I have all morning to fortify myself to my fate. Because I start slow and speed up, because European runners are notorious for their blazing beginnings and because I’m among the slowest of the speedsters, I will probably be the last person in this group of 55 for a while. I tuck my compass in my sports bra for fast access, so that I don’t end up in Algeria.
About an hour in, I have picked my way up a dry ravine to the top of a ridgeline of gray limestone filled with ancient seashells and other fossil debris. An 800-foot-tall, super-steep, peach-colored sand dune is our means of descending back to flat ground. The act of lowering oneself over this pile of sand is not glissading, not riding, not bounding. Because of the length of time I am separated from the steep dune and because of the soft footfalls, I feel like a lunar explorer as I jump. When each foot hits sand, it is gobbled up to the ankle. Flying leaps and feathery landings, I repeat this process until the dune slopes away to hard dirt.
Starting in the late group means that I catch many of the runners who started earlier and are moving at a slower pace. This is the purpose of a staggered start for the highest-ranking runners: runners of all kinds are mixed up and interacting with each other on course. I trot next to Didier Benguigui, a visually impaired runner from France, and his guide Gilles Clain.
Says Gilles, “C’est la femme Américaine, Meghan!”
Replies Didier, “Allez, Meghan!”
Didier keeps a solid pace on these flats. But he is near the back of the pack, so I know it must have taken him a long time to climb up that ravine and down the dune. My heart rises into my throat for the fact that I thought it was hard and Didier did it without sight.
I finally spit out, “Didier, vous êtes magnifique.”
“Merci,” he continues, “Mais le monde est magnifique!”
Soon I am rock hopping a stream of moving, pooling, cool, clear water, which is a near-miracle in the desert. I dip my hat in, then use it to splash myself. Runners frolic everywhere and, as I climb the embankment on the stream’s far side, a half-dozen folks clap for me. I fist pump in reply.
A few hours later, I see Vince Antunez, 51, a seasoned stage racer from Texas. He wore FiveFingers at the bivouac before the race, and because most of us go large lengths to protect ourselves from the Sahara’s sharp things, they and their owner caught my eye. This week, I have learned that the military man has a hard outer shell and is goofy at heart, so I hug him and sprint off. I turn around to see that he has his head thrown back in laughter about my sneak attack. He finally shouts, “The best hug, ever!”
Mohammad Almatar, a speedy, sponsored 27-year-old from Kuwait, and I leave the 50-kilometer water checkpoint and enter a flat dune field together. He’s been finishing 15 or 20 minutes ahead of me in the previous stages, so I imagine he’s having a rough day. No matter, his sand-running skills are superb, which is appropriate given the volume of it in his home country.
He takes short, quick steps. Fast contact with the sand prevents him from sinking into it. He lands with his whole foot, toes and heel together, so as to spread his body weight over the entire shoe’s surface area. He follows the dunes’ crests, running on their harder-packed windward side, rather than in a straight line the direction we’re headed.
During this fray, I observe: Mohammad is playing. He is the runner version of a child in a sandbox, taking backscratcher leaps off 10-foot dune crests and landing on the soft sand below. And, as we weave back and forth—sometimes taking the same line, but other times running the crests of parallel dunes—we exchange smiles, grunts and even a handshake. His approach and others, from Didi’s observations of our beautiful world, to the runners’ splashing around in the only water we’ll see all week, to Vince’s ability to laugh in the middle of a one very long run, are jovial and light-hearted. I can see and feel in them and myself that this joy takes the pressure off of racing.
When I cross the finish line in the dark a few hours later, exactly 11 hours after starting, I jump around like I won the lottery. I shoot fists toward the stars. I grab handfuls of sand. I hug the race official who is minding the timing equipment. And then, because I tend to do so after efforts of this length and difficulty, I barf.